Socializing under the Texas sun

“Salonnière” Carla McDonald knows how to keep summer parties cool


It’s summertime, dolls — time for an outdoor soiree. So says Carla McDonald, Austin hostess, former marketing executive, television host and founder of the entertaining website the Salonnière (thesalonniere.com). With a tone aptly self-described as “conversational and frolicsome,” McDonald and her associates dish details on how to throw fabulous fetes, illustrating the articles with vintage photos that toss a saucy wink to parties of the past.

Playfulness aside, McDonald believes in the power of parties in a very serious way. “Social gatherings and parties are certainly fun, but they’re more than that,” she says. “They’re a very important part of human existence and life and culture. We have an innate need to connect with one another.”

And we needn’t stop partying just because it’s summer in Texas. Poll results released earlier this season by the Salonnière attest that people prefer outdoor parties during the hottest months. “It’s hot everywhere in the summer,” says McDonald. “It doesn’t really get in the way of people getting together to connect.”

On the contrary, says McDonald, summertime is a perfect season to gather. It’s already a nostalgic time, and nostalgia makes an excellent starting point for a party. “We all have such wonderful memories as kids of summer,” she says. Party hosts can tap into those feelings. “Put up a little tree swing or tire swing and let your guests have fun on that, just like they did when they were kids.” Activities that remind us of our childhood, she says, can help trigger good memories and make parties more enjoyable.

McDonald finds inspiration for her own parties and for her website in the famed “salons” of 17th and 18th century France. (Salonnière is the French word for the hostess of such a gathering.) The salons generally took place in individual homes and encouraged discussion of culture and ideas among members of the thriving, Enlightenment-era intellectual class. Historians credit salons with propelling France from its old, feudal monarchy ways into its Republican future. Many also regard the salons as an early exercise in women’s empowerment. As hostesses, salonnières wielded new power to select invitees and steer conversation, and thus the evolution of ideas.

McDonald says that the key to entertaining in the summer is to keep people comfortable and safe — and there are countless ways to do so. Start with timing. “It’s probably not the best idea to have a party right in the middle of the day,” she says. Consider brunch or a late dinner instead. Or perhaps an evening ice cream social. Or a late-night dessert party.

No matter the time of day, McDonald says it’s important to help guests stay cool by providing plenty of shade, perhaps an electric fan, and access to the air-conditioning inside so guests can come in to cool off if they need to.

Hydration, too, is essential. “You don’t want people hydrating on alcohol,” she says. “You want to make sure you are constantly serving glasses of water.” Sound boring? Stud it with frozen berries, or infuse it with fresh herbs to make it more appealing. Complement it with a festive-looking drink made from coconut water, a staple hydrator in hot climates around the tropics.

For outside parties, half the decorating is done before you start with lush greenery all around us after a quenchingly wet spring. The downside is that the rain has also nurtured a bumper crop of mosquitoes and other pesky insects. Even blood-sucking bugs can’t deter McDonald, though. Provide bug spray (far from the food) and deploy citronella candles and tiki torches around the perimeter of your party area, she counsels. Maybe send guests home with an itch stick as a party favor, just in case.

“It is what it is,” says McDonald, who was born in Germany and grew up following her father, an engineer in the oil business, all over the world. “You can’t run away from the fact that summer is hot here and everywhere.” McDonald and her family spend time each summer at their home on Nantucket Island and face heat there, too, when they host clambakes on the beach.

A clambake might feel out of place in Austin, but it’s a good example of McDonald’s other rule for summer parties: Keep it casual. “When things are fussy, it can make you feel warmer,” she says. Guests should feel comfortable wearing shorts, sundresses, and flip-flops — even swimsuits, if you have a pool.

The casual mood should extend to the food at any outdoor summer gathering. In the Salonnière poll, half of respondents cited barbecue as their favorite summer party format, so don’t disappoint. Grilled shrimp, steak, burgers, marinated tofu, and local sausage make for great main courses — and conversation ignites around the grill as cooks compare notes and techniques.

For a side, let the tangy juice of heirloom tomatoes hydrate your guests by serving them simply sliced and mixed with sherry vinegar and citrus zest. Don’t forget the watermelon, recognized since colonial times as a refreshing, outdoor-friendly food.

Come dessert, aim for cold and light. Chilled lemon bars deliver energizing tang. A frozen icebox cake can ramp up the nostalgia. If you really want to transport guests back to the festive zeal of their youth, serve them popsicles or sno-cones. Then get in line for your own turn on that tire swing.



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